Stone supply held up tunnel
October 26, 1995
By Pamela Cressey
Patricia Knock reading plaques at the Wilkes Street Tunnel, which is 170 feet long with exterior walls extending an additional 120 feet to South Royal Street. Courtesy of Alexandria Archaeology. The tunnel's vaulted walls and interior walls are random range grey sandstone which are dry-laid. The interior is 170 feet long, while exterior stone and brick walls on the Royal Street side extend another 120 feet. The arch is grey sandstone masonry with a width of 15 feet, and a height of 17 feet one inch at the keystone.
"Yesterday forenoon our citizens on the wharf were delighted with the sight of three car loads of flour, meal and shipstuff from the Central Mills, owned by Messrs. J.J. Wheat & Brothers. The cars came in with flags flying and amidst the shouts of the assembled crowd. Mr. John Tasapaugh we understand claims the honor of taking off the first barrel of flour received by the railroad. This is but a sprinkling of what we shall see when the road is completed further into the country."
- ALEXANDRIA GAZETTE MAY 30, 1851
So began the illustrious history of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and the Wilkes Street Tunnel. By joining the waterfront wharves with the western hinterland by rail, Alexandria secured its role as a regional economic hub in this new transportation era.
The Wilkes Street Tunnel is a landmark today. We are accustomed to viewing its stone and brick walls daily as we travel to the Old Town Safeway. But what did the tunnel look like in May of 1851? Apparently it was not a completed structure. On May 15, T. C. Atkinson, the chief engineer, wrote: "The job of Graduation terminating at the end of the second mile,...for which Messrs. Malone & Crockett were contractors, advanced with reasonable speed in all respects, except the Tunnel itself. This portion of the work proceeded so slowly that at their solicitation in the month of November lst, it was determined to take it out of their hands.
"Since that date it has been prosecuted by the Company and I am gratified to be enable to say now that the work embraced in their contract has advanced so near to completion, that its cost will...very probably fall within [my estimate]. The estimate submitted ...was $24,751.30, and the expenditure . . .was less that $20,000." Atkinson noted that the first contractors' "delay arose from a disappointment in the supply of stone, for which they have hitherto relied upon the quarries at the Little Falls of the Potomac."
How long did it take to complete the tunnel? Atkinson's report was perhaps optimistic. Citizens were complained in the July 1, 1854 Alexandria Gazette: "Workmen are employed on the Railroad Tunnel on Wilkes street at the south end of the City. We hope to see this work speedily completed. It should not be suffered to remain in its present condition any longer." Ethelyn Cox noted in her street by street book that the Gazette reported that the eastern end of the tunnel was almost finished October 23, 1855.
Yet the October 1856 O&ARR annual report showed an additional $1965.81 expense for the tunnel. Since later annual reports do not document more expenditures, we think that the tunnel was completed in 1856. If you visit the tunnel today, you will not hear a train whistle. The current tunnel traffic consists of bikers.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist